Voices & Choices

What American political parties can learn from Canada’s Conservatives

What American political parties can learn from Canada’s Conservatives

Canada’s Conservative Party used a ranked choice voting (RCV) system after the 174,404 votes cast nationwide were re-weighted based on Canada’s electoral districts (which it calls ‘ridings’) in its all-mail election to choose a new leader on Sunday. 

All five of Canada's largest political parties incorporate RCV into their nomination process. The Conservative Party this year used the classic "instant runoff" form of ranked choice voting after ballots are re-weighted and converted into points by riding to ensure that each riding adds up to 100 points. To win, a candidate needs a majority of the total points.

Peter MacKay led in the first round with 33.52 percent of points, ahead of three other candidates. Yet Erin O'Toole emerged as the majority winner in the final round after Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan were eliminated. O’Toole had 57 percent of final-round points compared with MacKay’s 43 percent. 

In Canada’s parliamentary system, party leaders effectively serve as their party’s candidate for Prime Minister, making the role an extremely important one. Leaders must appeal to a broad swath of the country’s electorate in order to do well. 

By using RCV, Canadian Conservatives eliminate the risk that a candidate who appeals to just a small plurality of the party can win. Instead, they choose a consensus leader with the best chance of uniting the party before the next general election. 

This was the second consecutive Conservative leadership race in which the candidate who led based on first choices did not win in the final round. In 2015, the party successfully used RCV to elect a winner in a crowded field of fourteen candidates. That year, Andrew Scheer had trailed Maxime Bernier in the first twelve rounds of counting, but won with 51 percent to 49 percent in the thirteenth round. 

In contrast with RCV, plurality elections enable candidates to win even when only a small portion of the electorate supports them, calling the legitimacy of the entire election process into question. Recent primaries in Tennessee and Florida saw candidates win with less than a fourth of the vote, sparking calls for reform from citizens and local advocates.

American party leaders looking for ways to improve the primary processes could learn a lot from Conservatives north of the U.S. border. Everywhere they are tried, RCV elections prove themselves to be fairer and more efficient than plurality ones, picking leaders who are favored by the majority of their constituents.

(This post has been updated.)


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